Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune/MCT/NEWSCOM/File
Second home: Jim Johnson sits in his storage unit in Beloit, Wis. He admits that he can't throw anything away and says that he visits his unit six days a week.

Home sweet storage unit

When they rented a place to store things during a home renovation, it became like a second home.

"Refresh my memory," said the guy with the pleasant grin.

"Old-fashioned dining room set," I began. "China cabinet. Boxes from my in-laws' house. We moved out about four years ago."

The list of items clinched it. "Of course!" A hearty handshake followed.

"We need a unit again," I explained, basking in the warm welcome and spilling my current tale of space deprivation in our New Jersey home. I glanced at the displays of boxes and packing materials and the large windows offering a cheery view of the outside parking lot and inside loading platform. It was familiar; it was comfortable; it was home – our old self-storage community.

Almost a decade ago, we had a 10-by-10-foot unit here where my husband could take time to sort through and decide what to do with furniture, eclectic household items, and the collected miscellany of family life that remained after his parents had passed away. Our house was already filled. Storage seemed like a reasonable idea. Six months max, we figured.

About six years later, though, not much had changed. Eventually, we moved out. The good part – one less monthly bill. The bad part – most of the unit's contents had to be creatively stashed in our own house. It was "so long" to storage but, ultimately, not goodbye.

Now we were back to store items during renovation work on our home. Our new and somewhat smaller 5-by-10-foot unit was well located in the middle of a choice, quiet hallway – close to the restroom, loading platform, and office – but far enough away from all three to avoid the chaos on weekends.

It didn't take long to move in – books; 33 r.p.m. records, including Horowitz and the Platters; a $5 rolling snack cart from a yard sale; small tools for crafting jewelry; a rickety chair from my grandmother; and an electric keyboard.

Storage had been harder to deal with the first time around because visits brought back memories of my in-laws. Now, though, because the circumstances were totally different, the unit felt like a second home, causing both of us – especially me – to be overcome with a need to nest.

"Look," I anxiously pointed out one quiet Sunday afternoon when we deposited some unused table leaves. "That carpet stripping by the door is coming loose. Can we glue it down? It makes the place look shabby."

My husband, however, was busy fingering a small dent in our front door, a sturdy aluminum roll-up type contraption with horizontal accordion pleats. "Must have been someone who couldn't handle the flatbed cart," he mused, referring to the rolling conveyances for transporting treasures and junk between cars and units. "Maybe I could hammer it out."

Next came decorating. Wouldn't hanging a colorful poster inside the unit give the place a more lived-in look? But that would rob us of some needed wall space for storing things. Reluctantly abandoning this idea, I concentrated on housekeeping instead – mopping all available surfaces and shining up our "house number." After all, I wanted the place to be pleasant when I relaxed with coffee in my grandmother's chair and sorted through those boxes of recordings.

I should have realized that things were getting out of hand when I had the urge to unpack the keyboard and spend some quiet practice time there. But then I'd need to get headphones. And would I close the door or not? And why was the keyboard in storage in the first place?

Soon, the subject of neighbors rose high on my radar. Who was that serious looking couple hoisting the desk and lamp onto a cart? The desk even looked well polished; they probably had a fanatically neat unit. And would that exuberant family who waved and rolled past us shatter the serenity of the place? I found myself getting annoyed at my husband's lack of interest in these questions.

Then one summer day, I spied our new next-door neighbors. Two young guys were unloading dozens of neatly packaged collectible movie figures into the larger unit adjoining ours. Now this had intriguing conversational possibilities.

"Hi!" I called cheerily. "Moving day?"

Looking up glumly, they grunted return greetings and turned back to their task. Were they upset I hadn't brought them a pie or other welcoming gift?

My husband reminded me that we were just renting a storage unit, not buying a ski condo or shore house where neighborliness was more of an art form.

And it did sting to realize that all of our combined rental money could have gone toward a down payment on a ski or shore place. Then we would have had room to store and use everything along with the benefit of somewhere interesting to entertain friends – and new neighbors.

Except that we don't ski or swim.

In the meantime, assorted contractors have been repairing our home and paving the way for the return of more usable space – even storage space.

"We need to do some serious storage pruning," I announced recently, and not without regret. I'll miss our biweekly trips to the unit. But it's organize and move or bust – before we start suggesting capital improvements to the management, like adding a game room near the office or a picnic area on the roof.

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